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Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Maria Dizzia
Photo by Joan Marcus.

In the world ruled by water that's the setting of Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice, a simple umbrella is not sufficient protection. It may keep you dry enough during an average, everyday downpour on an elevator ride to the afterlife, but it's useless against the falling tears of the Gods themselves. After all, how could anyone resist joining in their titanic sobs?

As it turns out, it's not that hard. Ruhl's play, which Second Stage is giving its New York premiere (this production has already been seen at both the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the Yale Repertory Theatre), is a delicate rethinking of one of the most enduring Greek myths, and is filled with reasonable attempts by Ruhl and her excellent director Les Waters to get the waterworks flowing. It's precisely because of that reason that your own eyes remain dry.

Ruhl demonstrated in The Clean House, which Lincoln Center Theater produced Off-Broadway last season, that she's unafraid of pursuing familiar ideas by unfamiliar (and occasionally off-putting) means. But in that deliberately more absurdist play, one could more easily accept a general disconnection from humanity as a casualty of the war on disorder it documented. Eurydice contemplates the reverse, is the guise of another chapter in the never-ending saga that is our fear of and fascination with death, and thus requires a different touch. It seldom gets one.

The basics of the tale haven't changed much in the last 2,500 years: Musician Orpheus is so grief-stricken by the death of his beautiful young wife Eurydice that he composes and performs the saddest music ever heard. This moves even the usually intractable Gods, and the one overseeing the Underworld decrees that Orpheus may have Eurydice back, provided he leads her back to life without ever looking back at her along the way. When he does so anyway, she's resigned to the death again, this time for good.

Ruhl's specific take spices up the story not just by telling it from the point of view of Eurydice (Maria Dizzia), but also by playing up a love triangle of sorts between her, Orpheus (Joseph Parks), and her deceased father (Charles Shaw Robinson). Whether Eurydice is more taken with Orpheus's romantic love than her father's very different sort of affection, and whether she can rediscover the former with the Lord of the Underworld (Mark Zeisler), becomes the question on which the play hinges.

Mark Zeisler, Maria Dizzia, Ramiz Monsef, Gian-Murray Gianino, and Carla Harting
Photo by Joan Marcus.

This is an unusually fresh look at one of life's inevitabilities and one of its greatest joys, and Ruhl carefully explores the many implications of the battles for love before and after death. The final scene, in fact, even posits a deceptively heartwarming solution to a problem for which there is no easily identifiable answer, the moral to Orpheus and Eurydice tale that - in retrospect, at least - is curiously absent from most retellings.

But Ruhl's fusing of traditional romantic tragicomedy with her own "anything goes" aesthetic does little to simplify the journey there. The play tends to lurch about the emotional spectrum, never directly delivering feelings but also providing no especially useful equipment by which you can generate your own. Without more consistency between the two plays Ruhl has superglued together, you're left with an avant-garde Valentine's card that so muddles its point until you don't recognize it until it pokes you in the face:

Dizzia and Parks are the most pincushion-like performers, dopily ingratiating early on, but stammering through the play's darker scenes the way a fifth-grader might perform excerpts from Death of a Salesman. Neither makes a smooth transition between life and death; this underscores their discomfort in dealing with it but doesn't make for a pair of satisfying central portrayals.

Robinson, in contrast, brings a subdued spark to Eurydice's concerned father, which illuminates not only his own devotion but his realization that things can only end one way. Zeisler tries something similar with his devil-may-care Lord of the Underworld, but pushes too far into playfulness, making his highness of Hades almost too eternally immature. The on-hand Greek chorus of all-chanting, all-annoying Stones, played by Gian-Murray Gianino, Carla Harting, and Ramiz Monsef, could benefit from that kind of positive energy.

Waters, however, provides plenty of his own: His clean, elegant staging seizes on Ruhl's view of water as both a giver and taker of life to create a universe of restrained whimsy that seems to convey Ruhl's messages better than she does. Slow, stylized movement about Scott Bradley's celestial fountain set (complete with tile), as illuminated by Russell H. Champa's lights and amplified by Bray Poor's sound, gives the impression that everyone is tentatively swimming through life and beyond.

On that score, at least, Ruhl and Waters are in complete agreement. There's just not enough in Eurydice of such breathtaking power that you're forced to come up for air.

Through July 21
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street at 8th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Second Stage Theatre

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